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Return to Gilead

The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Taliban’s ascent is a threat to Afghan women and ethnic minorities who are already oppressed

By: /
18 May, 2021
Schoolgirls in the Dasht-e-Barchi neighbourhood of Kabul, target of a school bombing this month. Majority World/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

When I moved to Toronto in May 2017, I thought I had left the war behind in Kabul, my old home. I thought when the sound of explosions could not reach my apartment, I would live a different life. I was so naive.

I may be ten thousand kilometres from Kabul, but I still hear the sound of sobbing after some attacks. I did after the most recent one, a bombing attack against Sayed Al-Shuhada School in Dasht-e-Barchi, one of the poorest suburbs in the west of Kabul. The neighbourhood is home to over a million Hazaras, an ethnic minority of mainly Shia Muslims among a majority of Sunni Muslims in the country. It is a place I know well. 

I used to volunteer as a teacher at the Sayed Al-Shuhada School. In late 2006, when it was only empty land, I taught a class of 30 first grade students. My students, all from poor families, sat on a blue plastic mat for four hours each day under the hot summer sun. We had no running water or proper sanitation. We didn’t even have a board stand. I used large stones to keep the blackboard upright.

Today, Sayed Al-Shuhada is one of the largest schools in Kabul, home to around 7,500 girls and 7,000 boys. It is one of the few places in Kabul where girls outnumber the boys. The school, where my sister-in-law teaches, still has few basic resources. Most of the students sit on the ground in classes of around 100 students. The curriculum is limited to a few subjects because there are not funds to hire enough teachers. High school students, for example, only study math, physics and chemistry.

My 17-year-old niece, Shukriah Hussini, is a Grade 10 student at the school and was there when the bombs went off.  “Bodies were all over the places, I couldn’t move my feet,” she told me in telephone call. She was half a world away, but her sobs pulled me back to Kabul. “When I tried to run to the street, the second bomb exploded, and then the third one. It was terrifying, I don’t know how I survived it.”

When Shukriah and I finished talking, I couldn’t stop thinking about the depth of misery and discrimination that is consuming our community.

In the past decade or so, there has been a sharp increase in ethnically and religiously motivated assaults on Hazaras in Afghanistan. Since 2015, in Kabul alone, Hazaras have been the target of 18 attacks on schools, hospitals, mosques, sports clubs, peaceful protests and weddings. The so-called Islamic State, an extremist Sunni supremacist group, has taken responsibility for most of them.

Hazaras have also been targeted by the Taliban. And now, with the United States withdrawing from Afghanistan by September, the Taliban are set to regain at least some of the power they lost when an American-led coalition, which included Canada, partnered with anti-Taliban Afghan forces to overthrow them almost two decades ago.

* * *

While the Taliban’s return is no doubt a threat to the basic rights of women and ethnic and religious minorities in Afghanistan, it’s an exaggeration to say the people of Afghanistan, and women in particular, will lose their “achievements” of the past two decades. Most of those achievements have gone to men, members of Afghanistan’s dominant ethnic groups and a few elites from other ethnicities — not to ordinary Afghans.

“Many Afghan women today live under conditions similar to those they experienced during Taliban rule.”

Indeed, many Afghans, especially women, today live under conditions similar to those they experienced during Taliban rule. They may lose formal rights to education and employment should the Taliban’s hold on the country spread, but Afghan women, especially in rural areas, have little access to employment and education the way it is. What’s the use of a formal right to be educated when there is no school to attend? Or when your school becomes a slaughterhouse?

Under the U.S.-supported Afghan government, women are jailed for fleeing domestic violence, for eloping, even for being raped. According to a 2012 report, released by the NGO Human Rights Watch, about 95 per cent of imprisoned girls had been accused of “moral crimes,” which included running away from home (mostly due to domestic violence) and having sexual relationships outside marriage. Many imprisoned women are forced to undergo humiliating “virginity tests.”

The systemic discrimination institutionalized by the Afghan government means that women and ethnic and religious minorities have the least access to resources. The over-crowded and over-stretched Sayed Al Shuhada School is an example of this. Billions of dollars of development money have been poured into Afghanistan since 2001. Some of it is spent on “ghost” schools and teachers and fills the pockets of bureaucrats, politicians and NGOs. Little reaches schools in poor working-class neighborhoods like Dasht-e-Barchi.

As bad as things are, Afghan women are now worried that their lives will get even worse when America leaves and the Afghan government is left to negotiate some sort of deal with the Taliban.

I understand some of the fear women are facing in Afghanistan, because I lived that fear in 2010, when America announced a plan to withdraw by 2014. Then, I was a high school graduate, worrying whether I would be able to attend university or continue working if the Taliban returned.

It is hard to translate that feeling into words. It was like imagining life in Margaret Atwood’s Republic of Gilead, where women’s role is limited to childbearing and household duties; where women are barred from reading, having an opinion, or owning property; where women are indoctrinated with religious ideologies to perceive their oppression as service to God, to a totalitarian, patriarchal-theocratic regime.

Fear of living in the Taliban’s Gilead is once again real for women and all ethnic and religious minorities in Afghanistan. The attack on Sayed Al Shuhada School is a clear sign of the dangers that lie ahead.

But we cannot afford to lose hope. In all the wars Afghanistan has experienced since the 1980s, women are the ones who suffer the most. But their resistance and resilience are also unrelenting. Afghan women will persist, as they always have. I see this determination in my niece, too. She tells me she will return to school, “no matter what.”

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